Many years ago, awestruck or perhaps even infatuated by water colors and crayons, I tried my hand at painting. My biggest fans were my parents who proudly displayed my works of art to each guest who came home. Sadly, our visitors were not connoisseurs of the fine things in life and couldn’t appreciate my stick figures and awry brush strokes painting sunrises (or sunsets) across fields and that ubiquitous pond. But soon I was jaded and trashed my dreams of being the next Picasso. Even at that age I was miserable, because I never could figure out no matter how much time I put into it, why my paintings always had “that” amateurish look!
Had I known what vision and composition was all about, I could have saved myself much frustration and maybe exhibited my works at Peggy Guggenheim. Sure, I loved painting, I could draw, get my proportions right, mix the right colors and shades etc., but the paintings never really worked because my subjects were not in the right place. I could never discover that ‘hidden secret’ that the masters knew. Much after I’d discarded my paint brushes and colors, I heard about vision and composition. By then, my amateurish attempts at painting had been replaced by equally amateurish attempts at photography. The saving grace was – it wasn’t too late. After I’d discovered and began learning (which I still am) this elusive secret, the visual language, it started becoming apparent which artists knew their craft and which hopeful ones would be like I was with painting – lost in translation.
Of all the photographers-writers, Michael Freeman, Chris Orwig, Susan Sontag & co., whom I have read, one stands out as brilliantly eloquent in his writing,– David duChemin. His books “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking” are works of art in themselves, and David’s passion shines through. After reading these authors, I started asking myself “What is it that I want to say with this photograph? How can I say it best? Will it be understood?” The answer to the first question is a function of my vision and intent, to the second my expression, and to the last, interpretation.
For me, a “successful photograph” is a metaphor for a feeling that the artist is trying to express to the viewer. It is not about the subject or object, place, or event of the photograph, but rather about the feeling generated within the artist as part of making that image. And my opinion is that the success of the photograph should be evaluated only and only by the creating artist in whether his or her sense of feeling has been conveyed to the viewer through the image. This feeling is an indelible part of the photographer’s vision and intent which addresses what you decide to include in your frame and why. What you choose to keep within should mean something to you, or else be left out. As David puts it: “Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.”
Now as important a question our intent for a photograph is, it remains confined within us, unrealized, until it is within the frame. Our way of getting our inner feelings out is the photograph. Not the camera; the photograph. The camera is just the tool. The photograph is the very expression of our inner feeling experiencing freedom. How we make that photograph, with the tools at our disposal, and how close it comes to expressing what we hope, determines how successful that image is. To do that well, we turn to the language spoken by the photograph which is the subject, the subject matter and the composition, each of which give meaning to our photograph which is the story we want to tell. After that, interpretation is up to the ‘reader’. It is awareness and use of this visual language that allows us to move on from merely having vision to being able to express it. The better we know the language, its grammar, punctuation, syntax, the better our expression. Greater awareness of the language leads to an expanded and refined ability to use that language to express ourselves.
As an example, I made this photograph of an old man in Jaipur after watching him for about 15 minutes. He was sitting in the winter sun against this fascinating blue wall, with his “lathi” (bamboo staff) cradled in his lap and a withered “tulsi” (basil) plant up in front, while just behind him was a bright green potted plant. What I felt was a sense of time, of how we walk, oftentimes with support (the “lathi”) from one part of life to the other, from being an all green plant to a withered one. Was I able to express what I felt? I hope so.
We need to slow down – a mindful approach to our photographic process – being conscious of what we want to say and how we want to say it – will allow us to create images that are more able to express our unique inner voice that seems to prefer the camera as a means to getting those words out and onto paper. In our case the words are the elements around us, the paper is the photographic print. We’re left with arranging those elements within the frame – our visual language. Like a writer uses words and grammar to tell a story, photographers use the elements available in a scene and make decisions to create a story in a frame. Photographic elements such as lines, shapes, forms, textures, patterns, repetitions, color and light, when combined with the choice of optics and settings available, can be then arranged to express our vision. A grasp of what’s going on within the frame, and a mindful approach to creating photographs that speak this language, is enough to create powerful photographs that express something deep within us that stirs as we feel, not see. As David says, “Vision isn’t the goal. Expression is the goal”.
The better I am able to express, the better I’ll be interpreted and understood. I want to be understood, which is why I learn the visual language. So I don’t express in koans. I am not a Zen Master.